Selfhood and Agency: Understanding Individualism

Course Description

An individualistic conception of society and persons has been central to modern ‘western’ self-understanding. Obvious within pop culture, entertainment and media, it is equally evident in areas as disparate as psychological theorizing, liberal political ideology, and rights-based ethics and morality. Clearly it plays the crucial role in our understanding of the self and of personal identity. What are the historical roots of this conception? What is its moral appeal? What are its epistemological ramifications? Is individualism a viable or coherent notion? This course uses Charles Taylor’s seminal work Sources of the self to investigate these questions and inform a discussion of the postmodern critique of individualism, in particular focusing on the newly-emphasized significance of language and tradition.

As an independent reading course, students will be expected to conduct extensive reading and research independently. The central outcome of the course will be one major research paper of either conference-level presentation quality or journal-submittable quality. 

Required Texts:

Baumeister, R. (1986). Identity: cultural change and the struggle for self. New York & Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. (pp. 3-17, 28, 57-58, 246-265) 

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Texts (recommended but not required):

Dumont, L. (1986). Essays on individualism: modern ideology in anthropological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Weintraub, K. J. (1978). The value of the individual: Self and circumstance in autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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